ANCIENT MON PEOPLE

ANCIENT MON PEOPLE

The first major group of immigrants to arrive in present-day Burma were the Mon who were originally from China and settled in what is now northern Burma around the third century B.C. The Mon where a highly cultured Buddhist people with a classical North Indian heritage who settled in Central Burma. Pegu (50 miles from Yangon) was established by the Mon in the 6th century, it was the capital of southern Myanmar in the 13th century, when the Mons ruled the region. In 1757, it was sacked and almost completely destroyed by the Burmese monarch, King Alaungpaya.

The Mon were heavily influenced by Indian Hindu culture and Asoka Buddhist kingdom in India.. They established the Dvaravati Kingdom (A.D. 6th to 11th century) and several centers in mainland Southeast Asia. The Dvaravatis controlled the Menam Valley area in present-day Thailand from the 6th or 7th century to the 11th century. They were ultimately defeated by the Thais who absorbed much of their culture.

The Mon probably began migrating into the area in about 3000 B.C. and their first kingdom Suwarnabhumi. was founded around the port of Thaton in about 300 B.C. Spoken tradition suggests that they had contact with Buddhism via seafaring as early as the 3rd century B.C. though definitely by the 2nd century B.C. when they received an envoy of monks from Ashoka. Much of the Mon's written records have been destroyed through wars. The Mons blended Indian and Mon culture together in a hybird of the two civilizations. By the mid-9th century. they had come to dominate all of southern Myanmar. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]

The Mon of Haribhunjaya and Dvaravati kingdoms people in modern Thailand may have entered present-day Lower Burma as early as the 6th century A.D. According to mainstream scholarship, the Mon had founded at least two small kingdoms (or large city-states) centered around Pegu (Bago) and Thaton by the mid 9th century. The earliest external reference to a Lower Burma "kingdom" was in 844-848 by Arab geographers. The Mon practiced Theravada Buddhism. The kingdoms were prosperous from trade. The Kingdom of Thaton is widely considered to be the fabled kingdom of Suvarnabhumi (or Golden Land), referred to by the tradesmen of Indian Ocean. [Source: Wikipedia]

Once a very powerful political and cultural group, today’s Mon population of around 1.3 million has been mostly absorbed into the mainstream of Burmese culture. These Burmese Mons make up only a small part of the Mon-Khmer speakers of Southeast Asia with many of their relatives living further to the east in Thailand and Kampuchea. Although their culture has merged with that of the Burmese, the Mons have continued to use their own language and since 1962 have had their own state. As devout Buddhists, they follow their own ceremonial calendar of Theravadin festivals. Their main source of livelihood comes from the cultivation of rice, but they also grow other crops such as yams, sugar cane, and pineapple.

Ancient Mon Culture

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “The first Indianized peoples in Burma were the Mons. An honor shared with their northern neighbors, the Pyus. The Mons, a people of Malayo-Indonesian stock, are related to the early inhabitants of Thailand and Cambodia who also spoke Mon-Khmer languages. The Mons who are considered to be the indigenous inhabitants of lower Burma, established their most significant capital at Thaton, strategically located for trade near the Gulf of Martaban and the Andaman Sea. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

Little is known of the early history of the Mon people including how long their various kingdoms flourished and the extent of their domains. For example, it is not definitely known if it was the Mon or the Pyu who controlled the lower delta region. Descriptions in Chinese and Indian texts specify their settlement area as being around the present day cities of Moulmein and Pegu in the monsoonal plains of Southeast Burma. This area was first known as Suvannabhumi ("land of gold") and later as Ramannadesa ("Land of Ramanna"); Ramanna being the word for Mon people. The area known as Suvannanbhumi was often connected with the historical Buddha in the later Mon and Burmese chronicles that credit the Mons with first establishing the Buddhist religion in Burma. =

Although little is known about actual religious practice, trade connections through the Mon port city of Thaton can be traced to the Indian kingdom of the Buddhist King Ashoka from as early as the 3rd century B.C. Legend maintains that 2,500 years ago the Mon people began the original structure of the Shwedagon Pagoda that today has become the most revered Buddhist stupa in Burma, a true national monument. This theory, though tenable, lacks objective corroboration because the many changes that have been made to the pagoda over the years have repeatedly encased its original structure and there is no contemporary record of its foundation or a description of its form. =

The Mon were receptive to the art and literature of India, and for centuries they were the agents for diffusing Hindu cultural values in the region. The frequent occurrence of Sanskrit place-names in modern Thailand is one result of the long and pervasive Indian influence. In the eighth century, missionaries from Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) introduced the Mon to Theravada Buddhism. The Mon embraced Buddhism enthusiastically and conveyed it to the Khmer and the Malay of Tambralinga. The two Indian religious systems--Hindu and Buddhist--existed side by side without conflict. Hinduism continued to provide the cultural setting in which Buddhist religious values and ethical standards were articulated. Although Buddhism was the official religion of the Mon and the Khmer, in popular practice it incorporated many local cults.

In Thailand the ancient Mon culture is referred to as the Dvaravati civilization. Joe Cummings wrote in the Lonely Planet guide for Thailand: “Dvaravati is a Sanskrit name meaning Place of Gates, referring to the city of Krishna in the Indian epic poem Mahabharata. The French art historian Georges Coedès discovered the name on some coins that were excavated in the Nakhon Pathom area. The Dvaravati culture is known for its art work, including Buddha images (showing Indian Gupta influence), stucco reliefs on temple walls and in caves, architecture, exquisite terracotta heads, votive tablets and various sculptures. Dvaravati may have also been a cultural relay point for the Funan and Chenla cultures of ancient Laos and Cambodia to the northeast and east. The Chinese, through the travels of the famous pilgrim Xuan Zang, knew the area as Tuoluobodi, between Sriksetra (Myanmar) and Isanapura (Laos-Cambodia). [Source: Joe Cummings, Lonely Planet guide for Thailand]

Mon Kingdoms

Mon kingdoms were political establishments by the Mon-speaking people that ruled large sections of present-day Myanmar (Burma) at various times in the last 1200 years. The kingdoms in chronological order are the Thaton Kingdom (9th. century–1057), the Hanthawaddy Kingdom (1287–1539), and the Restored Hanthawaddy Kingdom (1740–1757). [Source: Wikipedia +]

The first recorded kingdom attributed to the Mon people is Dvaravati, which prospered until around 1000 A.D. when their capital was sacked by the Khmer Empire and a significant portion of the inhabitants fled west to present-day Lower Burma and eventually founded new polities. Thaton (9th century–1057). + See Thailand

Mainstream scholarship holds that the Mon established small polities (or large city-states) in Lower Burma. Both the city of Thaton and Pegu (Bago) are believed to have been established in the 9th century. The states were important trading ports between Indian ocean and mainland Southeast Asia. Still, according to traditional reconstruction, the early Mon city-states were conquered by the Pagan Kingdom from the north in 1057, and that Thaton's literary and religious traditions helped to mold early Pagan civilization. Between 1050 and about 1085, Mon craftsmen and artisans helped to build some two thousand monuments at Pagan, the remains of which today rival the splendors of Angkor Wat. The Mon script is considered to be the source of the Burmese script, the earliest evidence of which was dated to 1058, a year after the Thaton conquest, by the colonial era scholarship.

However, recent research—still a minority view—argues that Mon influence on the interior after Anawrahta's conquest is a greatly exaggerated post-Pagan legend, and that Lower Burma in fact lacked a substantial independent polity prior to Pagan's expansion. Possibly in this period, the delta sedimentation—which now extends the coastline by three miles a century—remained insufficient, and the sea still reached too far inland, to support a population even as large as the modest population of the late precolonial era. (The earliest evidence of Burmese script is dated to 1035, and possibly as early as 984 A.D. Recent research argues that the Pyu script was the source of the Burmese script.)

Though the size and importance of these states are still debated, all scholars accept that during the 11th century, Pagan established its authority in Lower Burma and this conquest facilitated growing cultural exchange, if not with local Mon, then with India and with Theravada stronghold Sri Lanka. From a geopolitical standpoint, Anawrahta's conquest of Thaton checked the Khmer advance in the Tenasserim coast.

Thaton

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “The early Mon kingdoms that were in power during the prehistoric period, were situated between the Sittang and Salween rivers and were referred to as Ramannadesa. Thaton, the seat of this kingdom, is believed to have been Suvannabhumi (“Golden Land”), a term that was also used to refer to the whole region of continental Southeast Asia bordering the Bay of Bengal. Thaton is thought to have been founded by King Siharaja during the lifetime of the Buddha, which would place it in the fifth century B.C. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

Thaton was once a flourishing port community that communicated with and transported goods from as far away as Southern India. Later Burmese chronicles credit the Mon people of Thaton with bringing the Buddhist religion to Burma. In these chronicles it is also stated that Buddhist manuscripts from Sri Lanka were translated into Mon characters around 400 AD. Although scholars have questioned this fact, it is known from local inscriptions that Theravada Buddhism definitely existed in Lower Burma by the fifth century AD. Although the exact founding date of Thaton and the extent of its kingdom has yet to be discovered, it is known that Thaton fell under Burmese control during the 11th century when the first great King of Pagan, Anawrahta, sacked the city and returned to Pagan with Thaton’s King Manuha as his captive. Thaton remained under Burmese domination until the fall of Pagan in 13th century. Thenceforth, the Mons re-established their independence, although the capital was later moved to other locations including Marataban and Pegu. =

Thaton’s quadrangular city plan resembles that of the later Burmese cities of Amarapura and Mandalay. Four walls surrounded the old city creating a rectangular shape that enclosed the walled palace compound that was located at its center. From north to south the palace site measured 1, 080 feet and 1, 150 feet from east to west. Two chief stupas were situated between the palace site and the south wall. Today, the old city of Thaton is no longer visible as growth of the modern town has obscured the earlier settlement.

Hanthawaddy (1287–1539)

In 1287, the Pagan Empire collapsed due to Mongol invasions, and all its vassal states became independent. In present-day Lower Burma, Wareru established a kingdom for the Mon-speaking people called Ramannadesa by unifying three Mon-speaking regions of Lower Burma: Martaban (Mottama), Pegu (Bago), the Irrawaddy delta. The kingdom's first capital was at Martaban but the capital was moved to Pegu in 1369. [Source: Wikipedia +]

King Wareru (ruled 1287-96) was a Tai adventurer of humble origins who had married a daughter of King Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai and had established himself as overlord of Martaban on the Salween River in 1281. Wareru and his ally. Tarabya. a Mon prince of Pegu. drove the Myanmar out of the Irrawaddy Delta and reestablished the independence of the Mon. Subsequently, Wareru killed Tarabya and made himself the sole ruler of the Mon, with his capital at Martaban. Although he was nominally a vassal of Ramkhamhaeng, he conducted independent diplomatic relations with the emperor Kublai Khan in China. A legendary achievement of his reign was the compilation of the Dharma-shastra. or Dhammathat. the earliest surviving law code of Myanmar. Wareru was murdered by his grandsons. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]

For its first 100 years, the Mon kingdom was merely a loose collection of three Mon-speaking regions. The high kings at the capital had little substantive authority over the vassals. Indeed, Martaban was in open rebellion from 1363 to 1389. A more centralized rule came with the reign of King Razadarit, who not only firmly unified the three Mon-speaking regions together but also successfully fended off the northern Burmese-speaking Kingdom of Ava in the Forty Years' War (1385–1424). The war ended in a stalemate but it was a victory for Hanthawaddy as Ava finally gave up its dream of restoring the Pagan Empire. In the years following the war, Pegu occasionally aided Ava's southern vassal states of Prome and Toungoo in their rebellions but carefully avoided getting plunged into a full scale war. +

After the war, Hanthawaddy entered its golden age whereas its rival Ava gradually went into decline. From the 1420s to the 1530s, Hanthawaddy was the most powerful and prosperous kingdom of all post-Pagan kingdoms. Under a string of especially gifted monarchs—Binnya Ran I, Shin Sawbu, Dhammazedi and Binnya Ran II—the kingdom enjoyed a long golden age, profiting from foreign commerce. Its merchants traded with traders from across the Indian Ocean, filling the king's treasury with gold and silver, silk and spices, and all the other stuff of early modern trade. The kingdom also became a famous center of Theravada Buddhism. It established strong ties with Ceylon, and encouraged reforms that later spread throughout the country. +

The powerful kingdom's end came abruptly. Due to the inexperience of King Takayutpi, the kingdom was captured by a smaller kingdom to the north, Kingdom of Toungoo in 1539 led by King Tabinshwehti and his deputy Gen. Bayinnaung. Toungoo captured the Irrawaddy delta in 1538, Pegu in 1539, and Martaban in 1541. The kingdom was briefly revived in 1550 after Tabinshwehti was assassinated. But Bayinnaung quickly defeated the rebellion in 1552. +

Restored Hanthawaddy (1740–1757)

Though Toungoo kings would rule all of Lower Burma well into the mid-18th century, the golden age of Hanthawaddy was fondly remembered by the Mon. In 1740, they rose up against a weak Toungoo Dynasty on its last legs, and succeeded in restoring the fallen Hanthawaddy Kingdom. Supported by the French, the upstart kingdom quickly carved out a space for itself in Lower Burma, and continued its push northward. On 23 March 1752, its forces captured Ava, and ended the 266-year-old Toungoo dynasty. [Source: Wikipedia +]

A new dynasty called Konbaung led by King Alaungpaya rose in Upper Burma to challenge the southern forces, and went on to conquer all of Upper Burma by January 1754. After Hanthawaddy's second invasion of Upper Burma failed in May 1754, the kingdom's leadership in self-defeating measures killed off the Toungoo royal family, and persecuted ethnic Burmans in the south, both of which only strengthened Alaungpaya's hand. In 1755, Alaungpaya invaded Lower Burma. Konbaung forces captured the Irrawaddy delta in May 1755, the French defended port of Thanlyin in July 1756, and finally the capital Pegu in May 1757. +

The fall of Restored Hanthawaddy was the beginning of the end of Mon people's centuries-old dominance of Lower Burma. Konbaung armies' reprisals forced thousands of Mons to flee to Siam. By the early 19th century, assimilation, inter-marriage, and mass migration of Burman families from the north had reduced the Mon population to a small minority. +

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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